Autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs are hot.
Sure, sometimes they’re extra hot—every few years, they become the trendy genres—but they’re never not popular. Our most favorite subject is ourselves. Humans love reading about other humans. It’s also incredibly impressive and admirable to translate a life into a written story with authenticity and vulnerability.
So, wouldn’t YOU like to write a good biography, autobiography, or memoir? This month, we provide some tips and tricks for crafting a work of nonfiction drawn from life and history that will leave your readers moved—to tears or to joy or to action—and definitely hungry for more. Oh, and don’t forget that Outskirts Press offers a spectacular One-Click Publishing Package for Memoirs!
Five time-honored ways to write from life are:
- Taste test. That is, take the time first to immerse yourself in the genre. Like many others, the autobiography, biography, and memoir genres are so diverse as to include everything from “chatty” celebrity tell-alls to serious historical excavations to symbolic and “atmospheric” texts that read like prose poems. Find a couple of examples of the field that do what you want to do, or that somehow make clear the imaginative possibilities of the form, or that do the exact opposite, and use these books as your guiding stars as you begin to craft your own masterpiece.
- Draw up a list of scenes. List the scenes the stick in your head, regardless of their importance to your larger life story or the life story of the historical figure you’re attempting to put together. These scenes are the memories or historical moments you know you want to write about, now or eventually, and can be organized or restructured later. Don’t put too much of a premium on what comes first or what you want your book’s first paragraph, page, or chapter to look or feel like. It’s more important that you get some words on the page without being intimidated by the process.
- Start fleshing out. Pick a couple of the scenes on your list and start drawing them out into sentences and paragraphs. As you go, you’ll begin to get a feel for what’s most central about that memory or historical moment. Is it the way it made you feel and how that affected who you became later? Is it key in understanding a relationship in your life or in the life of a historical figure, which shapes everything else? Is it that it provides humor to lighten the darker moments of your book? Highlight the lines that seem most important and telling. Move on to the next scene once you feel like you’ve reached a moment of completion. You’ll fit the pieces together later. Do you find that more scenes crop up in your mind as you’re writing? Perfect! Add them to the list. You’ll get to them eventually if they really are important.
- Embrace the drama. Employ each and every storytelling technique that you find helpful, including colorful language, dramatic tension, and situational irony. Just because you’re describing events that really happened doesn’t mean that you can’t use the tools of fiction to keep things fun and interesting. Think about the central conflicts of your scenes and if they might start adding together to something even larger and more central to the story of the life you’re telling. Does each memory circle around your or your historical figure’s relationship with your/their mother? What is the larger ecology that your collected scenes all fit within? Pump up the setting and the mood with all the vivid details you or the documents you’re drawing from can offer.
- Do your research. The fact remains that the true story isn’t limited to your own personal memories and lived-in experiences. Many of the most striking books to emerge in recent years—Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk, and Anne Lamott’s Some Assembly Required, for example—are personal stories built upon a foundation of deep research. Whether your book involves a backpacking trip across the Himalayas or a battle with cancer or experiences as an educator or anecdotes of career-related experiences, there are endless possibilities for research. Decades-old weather records for most corners of the globe are archived online. Your library likely stocks back issues of your local newspapers. State historical societies keep census data from the turn of the century. In an age when you can access fire insurance maps from the 1870s and also have your DNA sequenced for a small fee, there’s no limit to what information sources are available to strengthen your work.
Still feeling a little overwhelmed—but even more passionate about telling your story? Then it may be time to lean on an expert. If you’re looking to write and publish your memoirs or a biography about a historical figure, there’s never a better time than now to inquire